This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea is tapping its students to serve as free labor during the corn harvest this fall and searching them after each shift to make sure they aren’t stealing from the fields, residents of the country told Radio Free Asia.
The daily searches are an indignity for the students, but the government considers them a necessity to prevent theft. The country has been suffering from chronic food shortages for decades and every kernel is precious.
“The search involves patting the students down to see if they have corn kernels in their pockets or hidden in their belts,” a resident of South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Some students get angry and slap the hands of the patrol men lifting their clothes, saying things like ‘Why are you treating me like I’m a thief?’” the resident said.
North Korean students are put to work on farms multiple times per year. The government uses militaristic terminology to describe this policy, so instead of being forced to provide free labor for the corn harvest, they are “mobilized to fight the fall corn battle.”
In the course of the year, people made to work on farms will “fight the battles” of planting, fertilizing, weeding, and harvesting.
The current corn battle began at the beginning of last week, with all middle and high school students being mobilized to work from 1-7 p.m., after finishing morning classes, the South Pyongan resident said.
“Boys mainly carry the ears of corn harvested from the field to the threshing yard on their backs,” she said. “Girls peel the outer skin of corn carried by the boys and store the peeled corn back in the warehouse.”
At the end of the day, they must all submit themselves to the corn patrol – farmers deputized by the police – for search. In most years the corn patrol roams the streets checking adults for contraband corn, but this year their priority is to stop kids from stealing food from the farms, the South Pyongan resident said.
The searches are necessary because the North Korean government is trying to respond to shortages by ordering every farm to increase output this year and warning farming officials that they will be held responsible if they fall short, she said.
Many of the female students are uncomfortable with the daily searches at farms in Ryongchon county, in the northwestern province of North Pyongan, a farmer there told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“A female junior high school student protested by showing her empty pockets to a patrol officer who was trying to search her body,” said the farmer. “She said, ‘I’m not a corn thief, so you’ll never hear the end of it if you touch my body.’ The female students standing behind her also raised their voices, causing the patrol to stop the body search.”